Christians call that justification by faith; I'm right before God because of my faith in Christ, not because of the "good" things I do. That was a game changer for me. But what I'm learning about the gospel- about being in Christ- is it doesn't stop there. It doesn't stop with me being made right before God. It doesn't stop with me having a perfect "record" of obedience (Christ's) charged to my account. In fact, my "right standing" before God is only one aspect of a bigger reality- my union with Christ.
Here's what I mean. A lot of times the gospel is reduced to Jesus handing us a "ticket to Heaven" and we say, "this is the gospel! I'm justified through faith!" But that's simply an exchange of goods, not union with Christ. We can't reduce the gospel to just getting off the hook, because in fact it's so much more. I have "right standing" before God because it's part of being united to Christ. He didn't just hand me a "get out of jail free" card- He made me one with Jesus! You might be thinking, "this is a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo and it doesn't have much to do with my life." I used to think that too- before I realized how this changes everything.
It changes how I see myself. I'm not just a forgiven sinner. I'm not still a dirty rotten murderer who simply had the charges lifted, nor am I playing "pretend" with God about being righteous. I am actually changed on the inside to be like Jesus. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) The old, murderous me died with Christ on the cross. "We know that our old self was crucified with Christ" (Rom. 6:6) I've been given a new heart and a new mind- a new identity!- that is growing up to look like Jesus. "I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put in you" (Ez. 36:26), "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5)
It makes sense of my calling to do good works. All throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to live holy lives- but the reason is never "so that"...it is always "because of". The command is always because of who we now are in Christ. "You were dead but now you're alive! Live like it!" (Romans 6) "Your old self died with Christ and now you have been raised with him! Live like it!" (Colossians 3) "You were once orphans, now you're God's own children! Live like it!" (Galatians 4).
Adoption is one of the most helpful metaphors for me, because I've struggled with my own issues being fatherless. Orphans are used to not being able to trust anyone. They're used to hoarding food and closing off their hearts. But when they're adopted, their parents long for them to learn to let go of their fears. They long for their little ones to realize, "you are mine now! I'm not going to let you go hungry and I'll never leave you. You are no longer an orphan, you are my precious child- and I want you to learn how to live like it." Or if you're a Disney nerd like me, think of Simba. He was called to fight and take a stand against Scar- but it was in light of what was already true of him. Mufasa said "remember who you are!" This is like our calling to live like Jesus. We have been made one with him, and we need to learn how to live like it.
It changes how I see my future. Matt. 24:13 says, "he who endures to the end will be saved." That verse used to make me really nervous! I used to wonder, will I endure to the end? What does that even mean? I thought I'm saved by faith, not works! Well, if my salvation means that I've been made one with Jesus, I will endure to the end. If it's who I am now, I can't help but continue to be that. Romans 8 says that we're predestined to "be conformed to the image of" Jesus. I don't need to fear whether or not I'll "make it" in the end because I know that if I'm in Christ, I will become like him. Phil. 1:6 says, "I'm confident that He who began a good work in you will complete it." It's as simple as that! God made me one with Christ. It's who I am now. Even if I only show glimpses of a Christ-like character right now, even if it's still mixed in with a lot of the "old me", I know my trajectory. A baby swan doesn't look very much like a swan at all. But he can't help but to grow up to be what he actually is- a swan.
Jesus Christ lived perfectly before God. Why? Not because he felt obligated to keep all the rules! He did it because it was in harmony with his nature to love God and live in relationship with Him. In the same way, my being in Christ means that God changed me on the inside to want to obey God. This means that no matter how inconvenient it is, I'll always end up uncomfortable with sin. No matter how much I still love my little idols, I'll always end up wanting God more. It's my nature now!
This is drastically different from an attempt to "be good" in order to make God happy with you. Instead, it's "being good" because you've actually been made good on the inside. If you belong to Christ by faith, you are righteous before God because you're actually united to Christ. You've actually been changed on the inside. You haven't just been forgiven- you've been radically, permanently changed. And you will show it. You will repent of sin because it loses its appeal compared to the beauty you now see in God. You will bear the fruit of righteousness because you're growing up to look like your Father. It's who you are. You were saved- united to Christ- not just to get into Heaven or receive a "get out of jail free" card, but to become a "partaker of the divine nature" and actually live the life of Christ through His union with you.
And one day, you won't even need the "rules" to remind you how to live.
"I have been crucified with Christ; therefore it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives through me" (Gal. 2:20) "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." (Eph 1:10) "For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light." (Eph. 5:8) "See that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator." (Col. 3:9-10)